It isn’t the medium, it is the message

There is a lot of hope that tablets will save journalism as we know it. That hope is by current industrial providers of news content. Here’s a clip from Pew’s recent State of the Media report on magazines:

The good news for magazine publishers is that the newest mobile devices, particularly tablets, may provide a particularly good environment for magazines. Research shows that people read more long-form content on the new devices and that they spend more time on magazine apps specifically than with those of other media.

The bad news for magazine publishers is that the number of platforms they must compete on is proliferating.  Keeping up with the rapidly growing array of new technologies that consumers are adopting will require large investments, even as revenues show little or no growth.  While many magazine publishers believe tablet ads will eventually prove a lucrative replacement for print ads, it is far from clear when that will occur.  In the meantime, publishers are increasingly leveraging the power of their well-known brands into other arenas – events, e-commerce and even entertainment – in the effort to find the new revenues needed to ensure a strong future.

via Magazines: Are Hopes for Tablets Overdone? | State of the Media.

One of my real and deep fears for journalism and communication in general with skeumorphic products like tablet zines is that we’re trying to make the old work in the new, instead of exploring what the new medium can do creatively (can you play angry birds on a print magazine?) and potentially looking past the message of millions of internet users who chose against the old product when presented with a real choice.

Economist: Where and how people use tablets

Let’s think about this for a minute: There really isn’t a problem finding magazines or magazine content. All someone needs to do is just buy a magazine. Look at all the other activities on the list, it isn’t because people don’t like print… the tablet is capable of doing other things, and those things are what people do more than read magazines. The data suggests journalists would stand a much better chance creating an angry birds version of news than a tablet zine.

Journalists rationalize the audience departure by choosing to look at issues like free online vs. paywalls, but that ignores that the erosion in audience has not included readers under 45 coming back to the old brands online just to get the same news for free. People don’t have a problem finding traditional news content, it is everywhere. But it is a lot harder to face the possibility that people are choosing against traditional news.

There is clearly something going on, and that something is a very painful reality to face for people who cherish the ethics and methods they’ve been raised with. Objective journalists may not be all that objective about looking at themselves. To find out that we are not appreciated or effective when confronted with absolute data like mountains of traffic analytics when our editors have told us what is good and not… well, maybe it is like letting individual appointed judges rule against the popular vote. It won’t work in a market driven economy unless there is a restriction of choice or access that favors the establishment voice — something that did work when it took millions of dollars to be able to print or broadcast messages to the masses. And that’s how mass media has worked for over a century so far. But that’s changed now – forever.

I sincerely believe that it isn’t just the medium, it is the message, and putting the same methodology in gathering stories and telling stories into an animated magazine will not be productive. When we look at the tremendous information literacy problem, and graph it against sources, it isn’t “the interent” that’s at the center of it… it is what legacy media has done in response to the internet and commoditization of content via the breakdown of traditional syndication models where the use of wire copy has become so transparent and punditry, opinion, spin presented as instant (and uninformed) analysis, and annecdotal news gathering strategies coupled with inductive reasoning, have all produced an information industry that misinforms and provides content inflation rather than succinct, accurate and factual clarity. The philosopher Apectus said millennia ago that there are no catastrophes, it is our view of events that is catastrophic.

But I think there is much more hope for carrying out the mission of journalism differently and more effectively with these new tools. We just have to use the tools in new ways and not in the old ways. I sincerely feel that data-driven journalism, which is done online in ways that absolutely cannot be done in either print or broadcast, is not different because it is online, but because it is informed from methods that are more informative and accurate than traditional interviewing of a few representative sources and the construction of a narrative story. It is these deductive methods that are the most important, they are more like social science and less like storytelling, which is more like folklore.

Putting the same old print stories on a tablet, even if they have animated transitions and graphics that are interactive to varying degrees, will likely solve nothing in the real problems journalism has the opportunity to face — like the overwhelming number of citizens who believe things to be real that are not able to be substantiated.

In just one example, it is irrational that more and more people accept creationism as real against the hard science of evolution, which is proven and testable by the scientific method. News must not deal with truths objectively, it must deal with reality – that which can be proven – to be taken seriously and to be of benefit to societies and cultures.

The methodology that presents ideological truth as equal to scientific fact will solve nothing, in print, on air or in an iPad. Building a business around pandering to both sides will never work. When it comes to reporting news to readers, there can be no middle ground between reality and imagination, that is mixing fact with fiction.

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